Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

Gleaners, Do-Gooders, and Balers: Options for Linking Sustainability and Economic Development

Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

Gleaners, Do-Gooders, and Balers: Options for Linking Sustainability and Economic Development

Article excerpt


Sustainability and economic development are typically treated as conflicting goals in the literature and in practice. In this paper gleaners, do-gooders, and balers are used metaphorically to suggest that certain people outside the mainstream economy are in fact contributing to employment and generating wealth while acting in a sustainable manner, thus providing an example of how sustainable principles can complement economic development in all types of businesses. Third wave economic development strategies are shown to be compatible with gleaners who turn waste into a resource, do-gooders who find profit in being virtuous about conserving resources, and straw-bale house builders who find ways to cut through the cost barrier to develop sustainable technologies that are both better and cheaper. Local economic development officials can support these technologies through the use of third wave tools of leadership, information, and brokering, thereby helping to promote local economies that satisfy the short-term goals of businesses, support interdependent networks of growing firms, and minimize environmental damage.



Sustainability is one of the most ubiquitous words in contemporary development discourse (President's Council on Sustainable Development, 1996b), but also one of the least understood (Dixon & Fallon, 1989, Gale & Cordray, 1994). During the 1990s countless articles and books were written on the benefits (Auty & Brown, 1997; Brown, 1996; Panayotou, 1993), the potential (Hawkin, 1993; Kinsley, 1994; Meadows, 1996; Morris, 1993), or the challenges (Daly & Cobb, 1991; McDonough & Braumgart, 1998) of planning for and achieving sustainability in all parts of the world. Sustainability is a well-accepted value as far as environmental protection is concerned, but its implementation has been slow because of perceived conflicts with other community goals, especially economic development.

Conflicts between these goals lead to policy and planning problems that affect competing uses of resources, priorities for development, and tensions over property or land use. For example, Campbell (1996, p. 298) notes that environmental protection, equity, and economic growth are three conflicting goals that must be accommodated in sustainable development. Farrell and Hart (1998) suggest that getting to sustainability requires finding a balance among competing economic, social, and ecological goals, though it is not clear that a balance will please everyone. Arrow et al. (1995) conclude that even in the most affluent places economic growth generates environmental problems (sometimes exported to poor countries) that demand strong environmental policy and institutions. The conclusion of most analyses of sustainability is that to a greater or lesser degree environmental protection and economic development are in conflict.

We propose that economic activity is in fact compatible with environmental protection. In contrast to those who mainly see conflict between economic growth and the environment, we see an option out of the dilemma through the metaphorical lessons learned from gleaners, do-gooders, and balers. Consider these unconventional examples:

* In many urban neighborhoods, technically unemployed people make their 5 a.m. rounds with borrowed grocery carts gleaning cans and bottles from trash and recycling bins. Their daily load of recyclables provides the collector a cash income totally outside the structure of modern employment, beyond the reach of federal tax agents or data collectors from the Employment Development Department. In the process they help society reuse valuable resources and reduce urban waste streams.

* Energy consumption, once thought a motor for economic growth and well-being, is now being replaced with conservation as the most cost-effective way to run utilities or businesses. The early conservationists were do-gooders who preached virtue as a motive, but in the process they proved that sustainable practices were not only more profitable but created better communities. …

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